Bland inclusive design is bland

Recently, Jared Spool of UIE published a short post asking whether designing for everybody leads to bland results. He argued that in order to avoid acceptable, but anodyne and uninspiring design solutions, design teams need to focus on a given group at the expense of others. The analogy he used was a restaurant that focuses on a particular cuisine and concentrates on achieving excellence in that area rather than trying to cover all tastes. Does that mean he’s suggesting there’s a problem with inclusive design?

As an accessibility advocate, I’m inevitably drawn to any article that might appear to suggest that it’s OK to exclude some people in the design and development process. There has been an ongoing battle for those of us who think that the difficulties  people with accessibility needs have when trying to use technology are largely explained by design decisions that do not consider these people, whether inadvertently or deliberately. Inclusion therefore seems at odds with any advice that suggests “designing for all” is not an effective idea – so some people might take Spool’s advice to say “ah, universal design is bad, because it leads to a bland, diluted experience for everyone!”

However, I don’t think that was what Jared Spool was arguing at all. Rather, I think his post reinforces the argument that really good inclusive design is about making sure that the information, services and experience you want your target audience to receive is available to as many of that target audience as possible – and not fussing about serving people who are not part of the target audience. But, first of all, you need to define that target audience and what goals you want them to achieve. That’s an important job and one you have to get right – not least when you have legal obligations to avoid unjustifiably discriminating against people on account of their disability.

The target audience in most cases won’t be the entire population of the world (unless you’re someone like the BBC). So by narrowing down who you want to serve and how, you can then define an accessibility strategy that is focused on ensuring that disabled members of your target audience have an equivalent experience to everyone else. Phrases like “universal design” and “design for all” then become unhelpful, when in most situations we’re actually talking about accessibility within a set of constraints, within a specified audience. “Inclusive” makes much more sense as it doesn’t have that in-built assumption of “everyone everywhere all the time.”

This is the contextual approach to accessibility that Brian Kelly, myself and several colleagues have been advocating for many years. In education, obligations to ensure an accessible learning environment have to be applied within a number of constraints, including pedadogic constraints. For a particular learning activity, whether a lecture, module or degree, the constraints are defined as the learning outcomes that learners are expected to achieve at the end and any prerequisite skills a learner must have before starting the activity. Assuming these prerequisites and expected outcomes are valid and appropriate for the particular learning activity, then the best – creative, innovative, exciting – accessibility solutions will focus on helping disabled learners achieve these outcomes, without interfering with the nature of the outcomes.

Accessibility and aesthetics haven’t always got on well, but that shouldn’t continue to be the case. So whether you are designing an online learning resource on glaciation and its impact on the physical environment, or the web site of a coffee shop, the most effective inclusive design takes place within the context of serving your target audience, just as Jared Spool suggests. And, by focusing on disabled members of this target audience, you might just find you have an innovative, successful – and decidedly not bland – solution for everyone else.


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